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50 Best Albums of 2017

Taylor Swift clapped back, Kendrick Lamar got personal, Lorde threw a high-concept party and more

Music was full of fury, confusion and resistance in our first post-election year. Albums came with titles like American Dream (LCD Soundsystem), American Teen (Khalid) and All American Made (Margo Price). And indeed, artists did get explicitly political, from Randy Newman to Jason Isbell to Jay-Z. But music in 2017 was also about a more slippery sense of self, as genre lines fall away and artists searched for identity and purpose in weird times. Some of the year’s best classic rock came from pop stars like Kesha and Harry Styles; some of the year’s most acclaimed pop statements came via glossier sounds from alterna-rock icons like Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters, St. Vincent and Grizzly Bear. SZA melded emo self-evaluation with the sounds of modern R&B, Chris Stapleton joined classic soul to contemporary country, Jlin added experimental cutting-edge textures to Chicago dance music, Valerie June explored decades of American music and Drake pulled sounds and collaborators from all across the world. Here’s the best of a tumultuous year.

Chris Stapleton, 'From A Room: Volume 1'
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Chris Stapleton, ‘From A Room: Volume 1’

A collection of songs written 10 years ago, Stapleton’s eagerly awaited follow-up to 2015’s Traveller could have come across like some K-Tel Best of the Beard compilation. But the supremely talented singer doesn’t rest on old laurels. These performances crackle and pop with new energy, as Stapleton embraces the R&B, Southern rock and country components of his pedigree. On “Second One to Know,” he lets his voice run wild, setting up a wicked one-note guitar solo, and later dials it back on the hushed “Either Way.” It’s that kind of juxtaposition that makes Volume 1 (as well as the just-released Volume 2) an authentic snapshot. J.H.

Jay Som, 'Everybody Works'
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Jay Som, ‘Everybody Works’

Written, recorded and produced entirely in her D.I.Y. soundproofed bedroom, Melina Duterte’s sophomore LP sets a high bar for introverted pop. But for a product of hermetic genius, Everybody Works glows with warmth and goodwill for her fellow humans, most successfully during the swoon-worthy, lo-fi highlight “The Bus Song,” a lilting love note to a crush (and public transit). A jazzy undercurrent sprawls throughout tracks like “One More Time, Please” and “Baybee” – both slow jams for shoegazers, nestled in the intersection between Sade and Hope Sandoval. S.E.

Vince Staples, 'Big Fish Theory'
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Vince Staples, ‘Big Fish Theory’

If Vince Staples’ album title suggested a life of fish-bowl containment and observation, his music outlined a break-out strategy. The Long Beach rapper drew on house, electro and U.K. garage for a shifting set of thumpers more fitting for a festival dance tent than a Rap Caviar playlist. “Yeah Right” critiqued hip-hop’s material fixations from the inside out, with a verse from Kendrick Lamar to “twilight the zeitgeist” and production from EDM experimentalists Sophie and Flume. “SAMO” nodded at Jean-Michel Basquiat, while Staples flexed his cold-bloodedness, and Sophie demonstrated how trap could be an even more skeletal terror trip. Big Fish Theory was a throwback to hip-hop’s heyday, when the only rules were for breaking. J.L.

Drake, 'More Life'
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Drake, ‘More Life’

Part grime-experiment, part-trop house rendezvous, Drake explored a “playlist” with his expansive, blissfully voyeuristic More Life. On this 22-song project, we see many of Drake’s sides: the piña colada-sipping partier shines on “Passionfruit,” the nostalgic heartbreak kid emerges on “Teenage Fever” and the boastful jetsetter traps on “Gyalchester.” A variety of friends – old and new, local and global – shine with solo interludes and features, including Giggs, Skepta, Young Thug, Partynextdoor, Sampha, Jorja Smith, and even Kanye West, who made one of his very few musical appearances on the sweet, simple standout “Glow.” Following the gaudiness of last year’s Views and 2015’s back-to-back chart-topping mixtapes If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive, hearing Drake take a step back makes this project a no-frills victory lap. B.S.

Lana Del Rey, 'Lust for Life'
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Lana Del Rey, ‘Lust for Life’

“Part of the past, but now you’re the future,” Lana Del Rey sings on Lust for Life‘s opening track, “Love,” as the bass hollows out a cavernous space that connects Phil Spector to Atlanta trap. Del Rey’s fifth album drifts along on a sunset cloud so familiar and comforting, it’s easy to miss how focused and quietly audacious this music is. She shuffles mythic figures like she’s scrolling contacts in her phone. The lyrics invoke Iggy Pop, Patsy Cline, Brian Wilson and Led Zeppelin; the guests include the Weeknd, Stevie Nicks, A$AP Rocky and Sean Ono Lennon. Whatever she needs to invoke the weightlessness of life in our new not-normal, she takes. “Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” she intones in “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” “No, it’s only the beginning.” As true, and as terrifying, a thought as any song this year produced. J.L.

Paramore, 'After Laughter'
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Paramore, ‘After Laughter’

The tension between Paramore’s high-intensity hooks and withering lyrics explodes into fluorescent colors on After Laughter, which aims toward pop’s most hypermanic ideals while detailing inexorable drifts toward despair. The mania resulting from that split manifests in despondent-yet-danceable jams (“Hard Times”), mirror-image synth-pop (the acid-laced “Rose-Colored Boy”) and heartbreakingly wise balladry (the string-laden “26”), with highlife guitar tones and shimmering countermelodies adding to the overdriven atmosphere. Hayley Williams remains a powerful up-front presence, a belter who can croon as convincingly as she can yelp. Her vocal bravado almost makes you forget that After Laughter is an up-close chronicle of her weariness with the world. M.J.

Valerie June, 'The Order of Time'
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Valerie June, ‘The Order of Time’

Valerie June perfected her handsomely idiosyncratic brand of Americana on this second LP, steeped deep in electric blues and old-time folk, gilded in country twang and gospel yearning. The press-repeat standout is “Astral Plane,” with its woozy reverb and disarmingly tender, flying-on-the-ground vocals. “Shakedown” is an impressionist juke-joint party jam. But the headiest moments are “If And,” which taps into Tuareg styles to map African sounds from old world, to new, then ’round again; and “Got Soul,” a matter-of-fact re-braiding of Southern musical history with banjo, fiddle and Stax/Volt brass. Who knew musicology could feel so good? W.H.

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